From Ukraine to the Gaza Conflict: Male Victimisation of Sexual Violence and The ‘Man Question’ in International Law

Conflict-related sexual violence in recent times, whether in the context of Ukraine or Gaza, has captured global attention and elicited fervid reactions. The international community has staunchly opposed and condemned sexual violence in recent conflicts but only concerning sexual violence against women (see e.g., here,  here, and here). This demonstrates how the discussion of sexual violence and armed conflict, often overlooks the possibility of men being sexually violated. Male victims of sexual violence tend to remain an overlooked category especially when “Male Monsters” and “Innocent (Female) Victims” are the archetypes used to define and understand the context of an armed conflict.

In this post, by briefly discussing the allegations of sexual violence against men in recent conflicts, I revisit existing international laws dealing with sexual violence. I argue that existing international laws tend to shy away from acknowledging male victimisation of sexual violence, remain women-centric, and thus fail to deal with it in an adequate manner. I do so by raising the “Man Question” in international law while not departing from the point that the gender of international law is “male”. In fact, my inquiry lies here: If international law is indeed masculine, who are “the men” in the eyes of international law? In other words, is there an ideal conception of manhood that international law purports to portray?  

By asking the “Man Question”, my overarching goal here is not to obscure “the Woman question” in international law but to complement the interrogation into the gendered nature of international law by taking male sexual violence as a site of analysis. 

The Trend of Sexual Violence against Men in Recent Conflicts

With the conventional understanding of sexual violence as male perpetrators and women victims, the idea of men being a victim of sexual violence is difficult to grasp and faces resistance. That does not mean that sexual violence against men ceases to exist in reality but because of the shame and guilt culture such violence remains underreported. Men often become the victims of forced nudity, oral sex, masturbation, and rape, among others (see here). The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict has received reports alleging sexual violence against men and boys in the Ukraine. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine in investigating the allegations of rape in detention, also received reports of men being threatened with rape and genital mutilation. Sexual violence against men is not something new but has already been reported in other conflict settings (see e.g., Myanmar and Syria).  

Considering the prevalence of social stigma surrounding male victimisation of sexual violence, men who have experienced sexual torture, however, hesitate to report the incidents and seek health services. A report by the Women’s Refugee Commission on male survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine reveals that most of adult men might not seek health services due to the ‘fear of being identified as survivors’ or ‘fear of being identified or viewed as homosexual’, among others. These phenomena conform to the views expressed by the Special Representative about why it is ‘harder’  for men to report their victimisation of sexual violence. On the other hand, most recently, footage showing Palestinian men being stripped to their underwear while being guarded by Israeli forces has sparked outrage and given rise to ‘deep concern’. Worth mentioning that in the past, Palestinian men were reported to have been subject to sexual violence by Israeli authorities (see here). This concern, however, should not reject the possibility of Hamas committing sexual violence in Israel on October 7 beyond women.

Gender, Sexual Violence and the ‘Masculinity’ of International Law

In the relationship between gender and international law, men usually come as comparators and hold a gender status that women are expected to achieve. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for instance, affirms this uncompromising stance by asking States to adopt measures that would place women on equal footing with men (see the preamble, articles 2, 3, 7, and 8). In so doing, it presumes that all men navigate social life in the same manner and overlooks the patriarchal harm that men could suffer within the group rooted in their socio-economic and other conditions.

This speaks to the fact that international law, as a governing relationship between States, typically involves male heads of State who hold powerful positions in a society with a heteronormative yet complacent understanding of social relationships. It is not unexpected, therefore, that international laws dealing with sexual and gender-based violence, usually portray men either as the perpetrator of such violence or the provider of protection to female victims.

In this regard, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) assumes the role of a protector to save women from the horrors of sexual violence, a violent experience that is regarded as being ‘worse than death’. Sivakumaran in critiquing UNSC Res 1820 further observes how when it comes to the preventive measures against sexual violence, the UN is solely focused on women and girls (see here).

The dominant women-centric singular approach to respond to sexual violence, often arises from the tendency of perceiving sexual violence through the patriarchal concepts of honour and chastity, which women are only assumed to hold. International Humanitarian Law (IHL), for instance, reinforces this notion by evoking the concepts of “honour” and “respect” to deal with rape and other forms of sexual violence. In turn, sexual violence in the eyes of IHL, as Charlesworth observes, is  ‘an attack on (the warrior’s) honour or on the sanctity of motherhood’. Relevant to mention here is that the State itself stands as a gendered notion with its (hegemonic) masculinist aspect of self-determination and territorial integrity, the breach of which is usually compared with the invasion of a female body. International law, therefore, assumes the role of a typical (Western) heterosexual man who always provides, protects, and is impenetrable. Since it portrays the stereotypical idea of hegemonic masculinity, international law becomes complicit in legalising dominant masculine values with its male aggressor and women victims understanding. Although the global crisis of women’s rights demands strong human rights protection for the group, women, as Rosenblum contends, ‘cannot be the beginning, middle, and end of the story on international sex discrimination law‘. That is to say, while dealing with sex/gender-based discrimination, international law should broaden its horizon, be inclusive, and should not limit itself to the conventional understanding that only women can suffer such harm.

Due to the gender essentialist and heteronormative features of international law, men remain the archetypal “villains” in discussions of sexual violence and are seldom integrated into mainstream international human rights laws. In turn, male victimisation often fails to garner much attention. When it does, it often comes as a mere acknowledgment, a single reference, or relegated to a footnote (see 7), if not entirely disregarded.

For instance, while UNSC Res 2467 refers to sexual violence against men and boys, there are instances where the resolution appears hesitant in addressing sexual violence against men. In highlighting the need for care services for victims of sexual violence, the resolution affirmatively recognizes sexual violence against women but expresses doubt regarding whether men ‘may have been’  victims of sexual violence, using modal expressions that undermine the certainty of male victimisation.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the resolution emphasises the role of gender stereotypes and prejudices in causing sexual violence against women but neglects to include such considerations in its discussion of sexual violence against men. Consequently, the mere inclusion of male sexual violence in the resolution, without adequately acknowledging its gendered nature deeply rooted in patriarchy, might be perceived as expedient “gender washing” to respond to the emerging global human rights advocacy efforts calling for recognition of sexual violence against men.

International Criminal Law (ICL), on the other hand, attempts to change the narrative of sexual violence as a women-specific crime by adopting a gender-inclusive approach to define sexual violence. Article 21(3) of the Rome Statute provides that the provisions of the Statute must be interpreted in light of internationally recognized human rights and apply ‘without any adverse distinction founded on grounds such as gender’. Note that the term “gender” here includes male and female sexes ‘within the context of a society’ reflecting the resistance of some States that sought to limit the idea of gender to the male-female binary. However, in the Akayesu case, rape and sexual violence had been defined as the infliction of serious bodily or mental harm on the victims, who could be either “he” or “she”. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court goes further in its Policy on the Crime of Gender Persecution, identifying why rape remains a gendered crime even when it happens to men. The policy highlights ‘perpetrators may target men and boys through rape as a strategy to “feminize” them and/or to invoke the “indignity” of being treated as a woman or a homosexual’.

However, such an inclusive tone of understanding sexual violence does not always manifest in reality when it comes to dealing with male sexual violence. Male sexual violence lacks recognition and is often perceived simply as violence without the ascription of “sexual element”, often categorised as torture or other inhuman acts (see for example the analysis of Stanišić & Župljanin judgment here; more examples are here). Instead of being categorised as “rape”, male rape is often termed as ‘forced sexual intercourse’ (see here). These examples illustrate how the dominant conception of manhood often permeates the international legal order, where the idea of male vulnerability does not sit comfortably.


Despite the urge to treat sexual violence as a gender-neutral crime with its gender specific impact, discussions and response to sexual violence both against women and men remain distinct, with the latter receiving inadequate response and attention. This is mostly because sexual violence is still often perceived as a “women’s issue” without consideration of its gendered nature when it occurs against men. The “Man Question” in international law serves to unpack heteronormative values and encourages recognition of the patriarchal nature of international law, which tends to deny male victimisation of sexual violence and continues to prioritise the interests of men who conform to heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinity.

Arifur Rahman is currently reading for the LLM as a Arthur T. Vanderbilt Scholar at NYU School of Law under the mentorship of Professor David A.J. Richards. He is a law graduate of University of Dhaka.